'I never said I was perfect...' - Cork camogie player Ashling Thompson on learning lessons and moving on
It’s been a rough year-and-a-half for Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson, ending in her pleading guilty to assault last month. While acknowledging her regrets, she tells Emily Hourican she believes the media behaved like ‘bullies’, and is determined to move on, with new opportunities ahead of her and a new approach
The last time I met Cork camogie star Ashling Thompson - winner of four All Irelands with Cork and three with her club, Milford GAA - back in 2016, she told me she felt like she was "made of steel". Today, it's a different story. She looks a little weary, a little pale. She has been, she says, "through the wringer for the last year-and-a-half". By which she means since February of last year, when two separate incidents on the same night in a Cork nightclub led to her pleading guilty to assault and being ordered, last month, to pay a total of €6,000 to cover charitable donations and the expenses of the two female victims in the case, neither of whom, the court was told, had sought significant medical attention for their injuries.
Once the €6,000 is paid, the case will, according to the judge, "... disappear. No convictions. It disappears in to a fog. There is no probation act. No strike out."
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It is, therefore, the end of a harrowing 15 months for Ashling, and she is determined that it will be just that: the end - the drawing of a line under this stage of her life. "I'm glad to have it behind me," she says. "It's a bump in the road and I need to learn from it, and I need to move on, because otherwise I'm going to be stuck at a crossroads. Obviously it's an extremely tough time at the moment, but I have coping mechanisms from previous traumas, on how to deal with it. I'm not saying it's easy. It's not a walk in the park - there's a lot of things that come with this, emotionally. But you've either got to move on, start afresh, or you could dwell on the past.
"Things happen." she says. "People make mistakes, but I've always said, how you react to a situation is how you're going to define your future. I could sit and dwell on it and let it eat me up, but I know, for myself, and for my friends and family who would love to see me move on, that I can't do that."
Does she regret what happened? "Of course," she says. "I regret that I reacted to the situation. I should have never reacted to it. I have to take responsibility. I hold my hands up - whenever I'm wrong in a situation, I'm wrong, and I'll take it, but at the same time, I'm extremely passionate and I'm very proud of who I am, and I'm not going to let anyone take away what I've achieved in life, you know?"
She is both contrite, and defiant. For all that she regrets what happened in that nightclub, and her own response, she also feels, strongly, that: "Lots of people have been in that situation, but if you don't have a profile, it's not news. Which is not to take away from what happened, but I don't think it's fair at the same time, to be subjected to that. I don't think it's fair on anyone to be subject to that sort of harassment [I've had]. I think it's bullying. I think the media are bullies to a certain extent," she says. She adds, with wisdom clearly learned the hard way, "When you're up, you're up, and everybody loves you, and when you're down, everybody wants to kick you."
Ashling is now 29, and has been, as she says herself, "through a lot, in life in general". She has also, as she points out, always been commendably honest about her experiences, and her emotional reaction, speaking out about her own depression and mental-health issues in a bid to help others. "I've had a lot of troubles, I've been extremely honest about who I am and things that I've faced in life. I've made a lot of mistakes in the past, not just in recent times, and I've always admitted to those; I never said I was perfect. But I've put a lot on the line before, to help other people."
The "previous traumas" she refers to include a car accident in 2009, when she was 19 and in her first year of college, and later the suicide of a close friend and on-off boyfriend.
The car crash left her with severe muscle damage to her back and neck, at a time when she was already playing camogie at the highest level. "I was used to getting bangs in games," she told me back in 2016. "And at first I said, 'I'll be totally fine'. But in the hospital, the physio said, 'There's no way you can go back playing, and you probably won't be right for a long time'." For Ashling, who was sports-mad her entire life - "I just wanted to play sports all the time" - the enforced inactivity was "like a ton of bricks".
Her mental health suffered seriously. "I stopped talking to my friends. I would be cooped up in my room 24/7. I stopped eating, I lost so much weight. It all was so overwhelming and I didn't know how to cope with it...Your whole identity comes to a stop," she explained back then. "It was like it was taken away from me and there was nothing I could do... I started to get really angry then."
Mostly, she was angry at herself - she had been driving - and couldn't get past the many 'what ifs' - why did I go out that day? I didn't need to; I should have just stayed at home… With a ferocious temper, one that made her two older brothers "half afraid" of her, and without the tools to understand what was happening to her - "I didn't have a clue what was going on in my head" - Ashling gradually sank into depression.
"I became depressed, but didn't have a clue about depression, the signs or symptoms, so I was constantly beating myself up: why am I feeling this way?" She spoke to no one, sought no advice, took no medication. Instead, she battled on, alone. "Growing up in a sporting environment, you've to be tough as nails," she told me back then. And she tried to be. But anyone who has ever tried to fight depression will know, it's not that simple. Not at all.
Eventually, Ashling went back to training, but the anger came with her, and soon she was involved in so many altercations on the pitch that she became known as a hothead, someone who would lose the rag, and was targeted accordingly. "Everyone wants to target someone who is going to lose the head," she had said, wryly. She began to be left on the bench "because I was such a liability".
Angry, hurt, confused, without the tools to manage her emotions, Ashling "went on a really bad path and started doing stupid things". By which she means bad relationships, bad friendships, staying out late, not coming home.
"You get involved with the wrong crowd - there's violence and everything involved... You seek out terrible people who won't feel sorry for you." Through this bad time, sport, she has always maintained, is what saved her. She continued to train, and was gradually working her way past the mental blocks, the hairline triggers in her head, when a young man she describes as someone she was in an "on-off relationship with... we were the best of friends" took his own life just weeks before his 21st birthday. "I felt my soul had sucked out of my body. I couldn't breathe when it hit me," is how she described that time.
Life or death
Through it, she kept training. "Because it's life or death… For me, not training would be like a diabetic not taking their insulin." In 2015, she captained the Cork camogie team that won the All Ireland, and was awarded an All-Star award in 2015 and in 2017. She learned how to manage her emotions: "I'm so happy I have the coping mechanisms, that I know what to do, because it's such a scary place if you don't know what to do," she told me back then. It sounded as if the future might be plain - plain-ish, anyway - sailing for Ashling.
But of course life isn't like that. That's why it's life, and not a movie. Most of us need to learn the same lesson many times before it finally sticks, and Ashling is no different. "It seems to be my pattern that it takes something traumatic happening for me to go, 'Now you need a fresh start'," she says wryly. And a fresh start is exactly what she is now aiming for. "It's about making a positive situation out of something that might be negative. That's kind of how my life has gone. It might take something horrendous to happen for me to do something and make a new beginning."
At the moment, Ashling is playing for her club, but not her county. "I've taken a step back from Cork for the moment. That was a personal decision. It wasn't a management decision, or anything from the county board, it was a personal decision to step away for the moment."
Why? "I feel like if my head is not 100pc in something, I'm not going to do it. So I want to take this time as an opportunity to see what's out there. And there is a lot out there at the moment, especially overseas. So maybe this is my time."
By 'overseas', she mostly means Australia. "It's up in the air, everything is still a bit fresh, but there's huge talk now when it comes to AFLW [Australian Football League, Women] - Australia. That's a huge avenue." Has she ever been to Australia? "Never. I've never taken a year out. I've been playing my whole life, except for when I was injured. I've been more than 20 years in the sport, and not one year off. This is a forced decision. But I can see it as a massive opportunity. I feel like now is like a new beginning rather than something negative. I tend to want to see the positive out of all of this. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason."
She has been amazed, and heartened, by the support she has found in the last difficult year-and-a-half. "I have so much support at home. My club team are just amazing - anything I need, they're there for me. Newtownshandrum, the town where I live, the local people, all of north Cork, they're so supportive. It's unbelievable," she says, adding, "That's what you need - you need people to gather around you. Obviously, I'm really good at taking things on the chin, but there are times where you feel like you need to be supported too, and I get that full support from where I'm from."
Does she feel there is any difference in how male and female sportspeople are perceived when it comes to this kind of off-pitch behaviour? Or, indeed, in the support structures available to male athletes over female athletes? "There's a lot of protection out there when it comes to men," she says. "I don't feel there's any bit of protection when it comes to women. Not even protection, but just in terms of support. There's nothing really out there in terms of support [for women]. No one was putting a hand out to help me. People tend to make allowances, I suppose, for men. I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing... but we give our lives to the game, we give our lives to sport - that's not to say there should be leeway - but everyone is human at the end of the day, and there shouldn't be one rule for one and one rule for the other. In terms of support, why is it not given to women? Emotionally, mentally, physically, making sure that someone is ok; I think that is a lot more available to men in sport."
The hardest part, she says, was telling her family - her parents and two brothers - about the court case. "That was a killer. I had to tell them before it broke. That was the biggest thing for me. They didn't want everything I had done to be taken away from me so quickly. But they've seen the support that has come through, and that's good for them."
As for what she has 'learned' from this period of her life, that falls into two distinct categories: "I'd never not be myself," she says, "but I've had a lot of time to think; a lot of time on my hands. I've had a lot of fears, a lot of anxiety. I've thought a lot about who I can trust. That was a hard lesson to learn. I think you should keep your circle very small, especially having a profile; keep your good friends really close to you. You do see a lot of sportspeople out there and all of a sudden they get a profile, and they do lose the run of themselves. You're just too open, you're like a target, everyone wants a piece of you, and you become vulnerable. There are a lot of wolves out there."
And, at the same time, she learned that "I have to re-evaluate everything. I need more self-care, self-love - you neglect that when you're on the go 24/7 and in the public eye a lot. I think I would benefit a lot from talking to someone."
A trust thing
So far, however, she has never found the 'right' person. "Not in a professional sense. I would talk to my friends, there's one or two that I would confide in, and my brothers, but in a professional sense, I've never explored that avenue, which is crazy. I think it's a trust thing with me, and I don't blame myself for that. But I would be fully open now to exploring that avenue. I think it's a lot harder when you're younger, and I think that's why I wasn't open to it when I was younger. Now I'm 29 and I feel like I'm definitely a lot more open."
For someone who has suffered with depression in the past, there is an obvious extra layer of worry over how something as significant and public as Ashling's court appearances will affect the delicate balance of mental health. Did she fear for herself in that way? "Yes. I was really worried about how I would feel when it was all over. My biggest fear was how I would react after. Would it affect me so much that I wouldn't be the same again? It's a scary thought, especially when you've been in that position before. When you've been depressed and that, it can be easy to fall back into it again."
But, she believes, she will be ok. "Because I've been through a lot, I just think this is something I'm definitely able to cope with. Not that I think it won't affect me down the line - it's had a massive impact on me - but I've built up a lot, I've been through a lot, and I know I can take this on, and I will move on. I've a lot of opportunity coming to me now, and I will take any avenue possible to create opportunity for myself. I'm not going to let it define me. Absolutely not."
Ultimately, she is adamant: "It could be so much worse - I have my health, I have my family. Things are rotten, but everybody deals with obstacles in life. I still have all my friends and family to support me. I have an opportunity to start afresh. That chapter's closed now, I'm never going to look back. It's a new beginning."
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan
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